BELFAST, United Kingdom — In 2023, a cholera outbreak in South Africa illustrates the correlation between disease and poverty. The spread of this disease sheds light on the bleak reality of the conditions and challenges faced by those most vulnerable in South Africa (SA). As this outbreak exposes the fragile balance between socioeconomic disparities and public health, it is apparent that immediate action is necessary to confront the medical emergency and effectively fortify social provisions for future risks.
This article delves into the complexities of the disease, how the cholera outbreak in South Africa spread and how economic and social inefficiencies play a key role in its development. Focus is also given to the measures being taken to combat the crisis, plans to rehabilitate communities most affected and the potential for a brighter future.
A Waterborne Menace
Cholera spreads predominantly through water and food contamination/pollution, posing the greatest threat to regions with underdeveloped sewage and water treatment systems. It is a diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine, where symptoms can vary and are often mild, but for approximately 1 of every 10 infected, symptoms are much more severe, with diarrhea, vomiting and rapid dehydration that, if left untreated, can result in death. Figures show that there have been at least 47 cholera-related fatalities in SA as of July 6, 2023, with more than 1,000 recorded infections since the outbreak began in early February.
The Chain Reaction: Poverty as The Catalyst
Between 2010 and 2021, nearly 97% of cholera outbreaks worldwide were recorded in nations with the lowest standards for water and sanitation infrastructure. According to Anja du Plessis, Associate Professor and Water Management Expert, University of South Africa, “More than 90% of the total 824 treatment plants across the country release raw or partially treated sewage directly into the country’s already scarce water resources.” Of SA’s 115 wastewater systems, 105 are in critical condition. Estimates suggest as little as 64% of households have a reliable water supply service, with five of South Africa’s nine provinces showing a decline in water access between 2002 and 2019. Considering figures such as these, numerous specialists and researchers believe that the outbreak was preventable — that a lack of maintenance in basic infrastructure, of existing policy enforcement and of tangible means for accountability create an environment susceptible to such disasters.
Reviving Vital Sources: The Path to Clean Water
Addressing a crisis as potent and lethal as a cholera outbreak requires efforts from the ground up. UNICEF, in partnership with the South African Red Cross Society, began efforts to mobilize lifesaving information concerning effective hygiene practices to the most vulnerable areas and has donated more than 3,000 hygiene packages to households nationwide. UNICEF continues to campaign for the right investments into effective water sanitation systems and ample access to safe water supplies on a national level. Real change demands a multifaceted approach that involves infrastructure development, technological innovation and community engagement. Upgrading and building new water treatment plants, pipelines and distribution networks are integral components of this initiative. Equally vital to this process is the kind of community engagement UNICEF is trying to inspire, which promotes awareness about the importance of water conservation, proper hygiene practices and responsible water usage.
– Ruairí Greene